Poor old Lord Keynes. The world's press has spent the past week blackening his name. Not intentionally: most of the dunderheads reporting the G20 summit that took place over the weekend really do believe that he proposed and founded the International Monetary Fund. It's one of those stories that passes unchecked from one journalist to another.
The truth is more interesting. At the UN's Bretton Woods conference in 1944, John Maynard Keynes put forward a much better idea. After it was thrown out, Geoffrey Crowther - then the editor of the Economist magazine - warned that "Lord Keynes was right ... the world will bitterly regret the fact that his arguments were rejected." But the world does not regret it, for almost everyone - the Economist included - has forgotten what he proposed.
One of the reasons for financial crises is the imbalance of trade between nations. Countries accumulate debt partly as a result of sustaining a trade deficit. They can easily become trapped in a vicious spiral: the bigger their debt, the harder it is to generate a trade surplus. International debt wrecks people's development, trashes the environment and threatens the global system with periodic crises.
As Keynes recognised, there is not much the debtor nations can do. Only the countries that maintain a trade surplus have real agency, so it is they who must be obliged to change their policies. His solution was an ingenious system for persuading the creditor nations to spend their surplus money back into the economies of the debtor nations.
He proposed a global bank, which he called the International Clearing Union. The bank would issue its own currency - the bancor - which was exchangeable with national currencies at fixed rates of exchange. The bancor would become the unit of account between nations, which means it would be used to measure a country's trade deficit or trade surplus.
Every country would have an overdraft facility in its bancor account at the International Clearing Union, equivalent to half the average value of its trade over a five-year period. To make the system work, the members of the union would need a powerful incentive to clear their bancor accounts by the end of the year: to end up with neither a trade deficit nor a trade surplus. But what would the incentive be?
Keynes proposed that any country racking up a large trade deficit (equating to more than half of its bancor overdraft allowance) would be charged interest on its account. It would also be obliged to reduce the value of its currency and to prevent the export of capital. But - and this was the key to his system - he insisted that the nations with a trade surplus would be subject to similar pressures. Any country with a bancor credit balance that was more than half the size of its overdraft facility would be charged interest, at a rate of 10%. It would also be obliged to increase the value of its currency and to permit the export of capital. If, by the end of the year, its credit balance exceeded the total value of its permitted overdraft, the surplus would be confiscated. The nations with a surplus would have a powerful incentive to get rid of it. In doing so, they would automatically clear other nations' deficits.
When Keynes began to explain his idea, in papers published in 1942 and 1943, it detonated in the minds of all who read it. The British economist Lionel Robbins reported that "it would be difficult to exaggerate the electrifying effect on thought throughout the whole relevant apparatus of government ... nothing so imaginative and so ambitious had ever been discussed". Economists all over the world saw that Keynes had cracked it. As the Allies prepared for the Bretton Woods conference, Britain adopted Keynes's solution as its official negotiating position.
But there was one country - at the time the world's biggest creditor - in which his proposal was less welcome. The head of the American delegation at Bretton Woods, Harry Dexter White, responded to Keynes's idea thus: "We have been perfectly adamant on that point. We have taken the position of absolutely no." Instead he proposed an International Stabilisation Fund, which would place the entire burden of maintaining the balance of trade on the deficit nations. It would impose no limits on the surplus that successful exporters could accumulate. He also suggested an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which would provide capital for economic reconstruction after the war. White, backed by the financial clout of the US treasury, prevailed. The International Stabilisation Fund became the International Monetary Fund. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development remains the principal lending arm of the World Bank.
The consequences, especially for the poorest indebted countries, have been catastrophic. Acting on behalf of the rich, imposing conditions that no free country would tolerate, the IMF has bled them dry. As Joseph Stiglitz has shown, the fund compounds existing economic crises and creates crises where none existed before. It has destabilised exchange rates, exacerbated balance of payments problems, forced countries into debt and recession, wrecked public services and destroyed the jobs and incomes of tens of millions of people.
The countries the fund instructs must place the control of inflation ahead of other economic objectives; immediately remove their barriers to trade and the flow of capital; liberalise their banking systems; reduce government spending on everything except debt repayments; and privatise the assets which can be sold to foreign investors. These happen to be the policies which best suit predatory financial speculators. They have exacerbated almost every crisis the IMF has attempted to solve.
You might imagine that the US, which since 1944 has turned from the world's biggest creditor to the world's biggest debtor, would have cause to regret the position it took at Bretton Woods. But Harry Dexter White ensured that the US could never lose. He awarded it special veto powers over any major decision made by the IMF or the World Bank, which means that it will never be subject to the fund's unwelcome demands. The IMF insists that the foreign exchange reserves maintained by other nations are held in the form of dollars. This is one of the reasons why the US economy doesn't collapse, no matter how much debt it accumulates.
On Saturday the G20 leaders admitted that "the Bretton Woods institutions must be comprehensively reformed". But the only concrete suggestions they made were that the IMF should be given more money and that poorer nations "should have greater voice and representation". We've already seen what this means: a tiny increase in their voting power, which does nothing to challenge the rich countries' control of the fund, let alone the US veto.
Is this the best they can do? No. As the global financial crisis deepens, the rich nations will be forced to recognise that their problems cannot be solved by tinkering with a system that is constitutionally destined to fail. But to understand why the world economy keeps running into trouble, they first need to understand what was lost in 1944.
by George Monbiot
Monday, 30 March 2009
Poor old Lord Keynes. The world's press has spent the past week blackening his name. Not intentionally: most of the dunderheads reporting the G20 summit that took place over the weekend really do believe that he proposed and founded the International Monetary Fund. It's one of those stories that passes unchecked from one journalist to another.
Joseph E Stiglitz is university professor at Columbia University, chairman of the UN Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. He is also the author of Globalization and Its Discontents, The Roaring Nineties: Why We're Paying the Price for the Greediest Decade in History and Making Globalization Work: The Next Steps to Global Justice.
The financial crisis that began in America's sub-prime mortgage market has now become a global recession – with growth projected to be a negative 1.5%, the worst performance since the Great Depression. Even countries that had done everything right are seeing marked declines in growth rates, and even deep recessions. And much of the most acute pain will be felt by developing countries.
A UN commission of experts on reforms of the international monetary and financial system, which I chair, has just published its preliminary report. It focuses especially on the impact of the crisis on developing countries and the poor everywhere, which is likely to be severe. An estimated 30 million more people will be unemployed in 2009 compared to 2007. The increase could even reach 50 million. Progress in reducing poverty may be halted. The report warns that: "Some 200 million people, mostly in developing economies, could be pushed into poverty if rapid action is not taken to counter the impact of the crisis."
While this is a global crisis, responses are undertaken by national
governments, who quite naturally look after their own citizens' interest
first. Particularly invidious are protectionist measures, such as the US
"buy America" provision in its stimulus package. In fact, the World Bank
reports that 17 of the group of 20 countries have engaged in protectionist measures, after making a commitment not to do so in their meeting in Washington in November. By focusing on national, as opposed to global impacts, the global stimulus will be less – and the global recovery weakened.
While there is a consensus that all countries should undertake strong
fiscal stimulus measures, many developing countries do not have the
resources, and it calls for a concerted approach for additional funding,
both for spending and liquidity support for countries and corporations in
developing countries that are strained by the current credit crunch.
Developed countries should contribute 1% of stimulus spending; there should be an immediate issue of special drawing rights (SDRs), the "IMF money" that can be used especially to help those facing difficulties, and an expansion of regional efforts, such as the Chang Mai initiative in Asia.
It is important that any assistance be provided without the usual strings.
Conditions such as those which force developing countries to contract
spending and raise interest rates are counterproductive: the intent of the
assistance is to help them expand their economies, thereby assisting the
global recovery. Deficiencies in current institutional arrangements for
disbursing funds – for example, through the IMF – have long been noted, but the reforms so far are insufficient. Countries with funds are often reluctant to give money to institutions in which they have little voice, and which have advocated policies that they do not support; and countries are often reluctant to borrow, given the stigma associated with turning to these institutions. The commission urges the creation of a new credit facility, in which the voice of the new providers of finance and the borrowers are both better heard.
There are several important lessons to be learned from the crisis. One is
that there is a need for better regulation. But reforms cannot be just
cosmetic, and they have to go beyond the financial sector. Inadequate
enforcement of competition laws has allowed banks to grow to be too big to fail. Inadequate corporate governance resulted in incentive schemes that led to excessive risk taking and short sighted behavior, which did not even serve shareholders well.
The Commission recommends the establishment of a Global Economic
Coordinating Council, not only to co-ordinate economic policy, but to assess the economic situation, identify gaps in the global institutional arrangement, and propose solutions. For instance, there is a need for a Global Financial Regulatory Authority – without which there is a risk of regulatory arbitrage, undermining regulation, and creating a race to the bottom. There is a need for a Global Competition Authority – markets are global in scale. There is a need for a better way of handling defaults of countries, of which there may be several in this crisis. And there is a need for better ways of managing the many risks that developing countries face, especially with debt and capital account management.
The other important commission recommendation concerns the creation of a new global reserve system. The existing system, with the US dollar as reserve currency, is fraying. The dollar has been volatile. There are increasing worries about future inflationary risks. At the same time,
putting so much money aside every year to protect countries against the
risks of global instability creates a downward bias in – aggregate demand – weakening the global economy. Moreover, the system has the peculiar property that poor countries are lending trillions of dollars to the US, at essentially zero interest rate, while within their country there are so many needs to which the money could be put. The Commission argues that a new Global Reserve System is "feasible, non-inflationary, and could be easily implemented".
After the East Asia crisis, there was much talk of reform, of a new global
financial architecture. But there was just talk; as the global economy
recovered, the impetus for reform faded. This is a more severe crisis. It
will last longer. Hopefully, this time, we learn our lesson.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran looks deep into the brain’s most basic mechanisms. By working with those who have very specific mental disabilities caused by brain injury or stroke, he can map functions of the mind to physical structures of the brain.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
Philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the methods of science and how these can be extended to include investigation of broader phenomena and ideas.
Spirituality and the Three Strands of Deep Science
Monday, 9 March 2009
On the 30th of September 2007, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sat down for a first-of-its-kind, unmoderated 2-hour discussion, convened by RDFRS and filmed by Josh Timonen. In this conversation the group trades stories of the public’s reaction to their recent books, their unexpected successes, criticisms and common misrepresentations. This is Part 2 of the discussion. Click here for Part 1.
Friday, 6 March 2009
The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." While formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1968 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter, the principle has real validity. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain. Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
The financial crisis challenges the assumptions we had about how the world is organised, and shows that free market fundamentalism was a huge intellectual mistake. Source: Kings Place Music Foundation
Monday, 2 March 2009
In this talk with humorous undertones and the rather unoriginal title "What is science" (the title wasn't his choice), he tries to infuse some of his bubbling enthusiasm into an excited audience of science teachers. It is a wonderfully inspiring talk for everyone interested in education practices.
-Presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, 1966 in New York City.
What is Science?
I thank Mr. DeRose for the opportunity to join you science teachers. I also am a science teacher. I have much experience only in teaching graduate students in physics, and as a result of the experience I know that I don't know how to teach.
I am sure that you who are real teachers working at the bottom level of this hierarchy of teachers, instructors of teachers, experts on curricula, also are sure that you, too, don't know how to do it; otherwise you wouldn't bother to come to the convention.
The subject "What Is Science" is not my choice. It was Mr. DeRose's subject. But I would like to say that I think that "what is science" is not at all equivalent to "how to teach science," and I must call that to your attention for two reasons. In the first place, from the way that I am preparing to give this lecture, it may seem that I am trying to tell you how to teach science--I am not at all in any way, because I don't know anything about small children. I have one, so I know that I don't know. The other is I think that most of you (because there is so much talk and so many papers and so many experts in the field) have some kind of a feeling of lack of self-confidence. In some way you are always being lectured on how things are not going too well and how you should learn to teach better. I am not going to berate you for the bad work you are doing and indicate how it can definitely be improved; that is not my intention.
As a matter of fact, we have very good students coming into Caltech, and during the years we found them getting better and better. Now how it is done, I don't know. I wonder if you know. I don't want to interfere with the system; it is very good.
Only two days ago we had a conference in which we decided that we don't have to teach a course in elementary quantum mechanics in the graduate school any more. When I was a student, they didn't even have a course in quantum mechanics in the graduate school; it was considered too difficult a subject. When I first started to teach, we had one. Now we teach it to undergraduates. We discover now that we don't have to have elementary quantum mechanics for graduates from other schools. Why is it getting pushed down? Because we are able to teach better in the university, and that is because the students coming up are better trained.
What is science? Of course you all must know, if you teach it. That's common sense. What can I say? If you don't know, every teacher's edition of every textbook gives a complete discussion of the subject. There is some kind of distorted distillation and watered-down and mixed-up words of Francis Bacon from some centuries ago, words which then were supposed to be the deep philosophy of science. But one of the greatest experimental scientists of the time who was really doing something, William Harvey, said that what Bacon said science was, was the science that a lord-chancellor would do. He [Bacon] spoke of making observations, but omitted the vital factor of judgment about what to observe and what to pay attention to.
And so what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set for myself after I said I would give this talk.
After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:
A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg comes after which?"
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you--which foot comes after which--I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research.
There have been a lot of attempts by the various press reporters to get some kind of a capsule of this talk; I prepared it only a little time ago, so it was impossible; but I can see them all rushing out now to write some sort of headline which says: "The Professor called the President of NSTA a toad."
Under these circumstances of the difficulty of the subject, and my dislike of philosophical exposition, I will present it in a very unusual way. I am just going to tell you how I learned what science is.
That's a little bit childish. I learned it as a child. I have had it in my blood from the beginning. And I would like to tell you how it got in. This sounds as though I am trying to tell you how to teach, but that is not my intention. I'm going to tell you what science is like by how I learned what science is like.
My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported--I am not directly aware of the conversation--my father said that "if it's a boy, he'll be a scientist." How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.
When I was very young--the earliest story I know--when I still ate in a high chair, my father would play a game with me after dinner.
He had brought a whole lot of old rectangular bathroom floor tiles from some place in Long Island City. We sat them up on end, one next to the other, and I was allowed to push the end one and watch the whole thing go down. So far, so good.
Next, the game improved. The tiles were different colors. I must put one white, two blues, one white, two blues, and another white and then two blues--I may want to put another blue, but it must be a white. You recognize already the usual insidious cleverness; first delight him in play, and then slowly inject material of educational value.
Well, my mother, who is a much more feeling woman, began to realize the insidiousness of his efforts and said, "Mel, please let the poor child put a blue tile if he wants to." My father said, "No, I want him to pay attention to patterns. It is the only thing I can do that is mathematics at this earliest level." If I were giving a talk on "what is mathematics," I would already have answered you. Mathematics is looking for patterns. (The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test, at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They've taken it out; it's too difficult for children. We used to weave colored paper through vertical strips and make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and made amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.)
Another thing that my father told me--and I can't quite explain it, because it "was more an emotion than a telling--was that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of all circles was always the same, no matter what the size. That didn't seem to me too unobvious, but the ratio had some marvelous property. That was a wonderful number, a deep number, pi. There was a mystery about this number that I didn't quite understand as a youth, but this was a great thing, and the result was that I looked for pi everywhere.
When I was learning later in school how to make the decimals for fractions, and how to make 3 1/8, 1 wrote 3.125 and, thinking I recognized a friend, wrote that it equals pi, the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle. The teacher corrected it to 3.1416.
I illustrate these things to show an influence. The idea that there is a mystery, that there is a wonder about the number was important to me--not what the number was. Very much later, when I was doing experiments in the laboratory--I mean my own home laboratory, fiddling around--no, excuse me, I didn't do experiments, I never did; I just fiddled around. Gradually, through books and manuals, I began to discover there were formulas applicable to electricity in relating the current and resistance, and so on. One day, looking at the formulas in some book or other, I discovered a formula for the frequency of a resonant circuit.
[?Something missing here] which was f = 1/2 pi LC, where L is the inductance and C the capacitance of the circle? You laugh, but I was very serious then. Pi was a thing with circles, and here is pi coming out of an electric circuit. Where was the circle? Do those of you who laughed know how that comes about?
I have to love the thing. I have to look for it. I have to think about it. And then I realized, of course, that the coils are made in circles. About a half year later, I found another book which gave the inductance of round coils and square coils, and there were other pi's in those formulas. I began to think about it again, and I realized that the pi did not come from the circular coils. I understand it better now; but in my heart I still don't know where that circle is, where that pi comes from.
When I was still pretty young--I don't know how old exactly--I had a ball in a wagon I was pulling, and I noticed something, so I ran up to my father to say that "When I pull the wagon, the ball runs to the back, and when I am running with the wagon and stop, the ball runs to the front. Why?"
How would you answer?
He said, "That, nobody knows." He said, "It's very general, though, it happens all the time to anything; anything that is moving tends to keep moving; anything standing still tries to maintain that condition. If you look close you will see the ball does not run to the back of the wagon where you start from standing still. It moves forward a bit too, but not as fast as the wagon. The back of the wagon catches up with the ball, which has trouble getting started moving. It's called inertia, that principle." I did run back to check, and sure enough, the ball didn't go backwards. He put the difference between what we know and what we call it very distinctly.
Regarding this business about names and words, I would tell you another story. 'We used to go up to the Catskill Mountains for vacations. In New York, you go the Catskill Mountains for vacations. The poor husbands had to go to work during the week, but they would come rushing out for weekends and stay with their families. On the weekends, my father would take me for walks in the woods. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about nature, and so an, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn't want to, because he said I was more advanced. I'm not trying to tell you how to teach, because what my father was doing was with a class of just one student; if he had a class of more than one, he was incapable of doing it.
So we went alone for our walk in the woods. But mothers were very powerful in those day's as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks in the woods. So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, "See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?"
I said, "I haven't got the slightest idea."
He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science."
I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.
The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody's name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say "the Fitz-Cronin effect," and I ask "What is the effect?" and I can't remember the name.
I would like to say a word or two--may I interrupt my little tale--about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.
It is not science. That doesn't mean, just because it is not science, that we don't have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It's necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn't say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It's a distinct difference. That doesn't mean an art teacher shouldn't teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn't know that. (Actually, you can find out in a minute by trying it; but that's a scientific way that art teachers may not think of explaining.)
In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.
To make my point still clearer, I shall pick out a certain science book to criticize unfavorably, which is unfair, because I am sure that with little ingenuity, I can find equally unfavorable things to say about others. There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off an the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog--a windable toy dog--and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says "What makes it move?" Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, "What makes it move?" Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, "What makes it move?" and so on.
I thought at first they were getting ready to tell what science was going to be about--physics, biology, chemistry--but that wasn't it. The answer was in the teacher's edition of the book: the answer I was trying to learn is that "energy makes it move."
Now, energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I meant is that it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly using the energy idea--it is beyond the first grade. It would be equally well to say that "God makes it move," or "spirit makes it move," or "movability makes it move." (In fact, one could equally well say "energy makes it stop.")
Look at it this way: that’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy. This is a very subtle difference. It's the same with this inertia proposition.
Perhaps I can make the difference a little clearer this way: If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.
What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That's good. The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.
Suppose a student would say, "I don't think energy makes it move." Where does the discussion go from there?
I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition.
Test it this way: you say, "Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language." Without using the word "energy," tell me what you know now about the dog's motion." You cannot. So you learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away. You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson, is that not possibly destructive?
I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad. The book has some others: "gravity makes it fall;" "the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction." Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction, is sad, because it's not science.
My father dealt a little bit with energy and used the term after I got a little bit of the idea about it. What he would have done I know, because he did in fact essentially the same thing--though not the same example of the toy dog. He would say, "It moves because the sun is shining," if he wanted to give the same lesson.
I would say, "No. What has that to do with the sun shining? It moved because I wound up the springs."
"And why, my friend, are you able to move to wind up the spring?"
"What, my friend, do you eat?"
"I eat plants."
"And how do they grow?"
"They grow because the sun is shining."
And it is the same with the [real] dog.
What about gasoline? Accumulated energy of the sun, which is captured by plants and preserved in the ground. Other examples all end with the sun. And so the same idea about the world that our textbook is driving at is phrased in a very exciting way.
All the things that we see that are moving, are moving because the sun is shining. It does explain the relationship of one source of energy to another, and it can be denied by the child. He could say, "I don't think it is on account of the sun shining," and you can start a discussion. So there is a difference. (Later I could challenge him with the tides, and what makes the earth turn, and have my hand on mystery again.)
That is just an example of the difference between definitions (which are necessary) and science. The only objection in this particular case was that it was the first lesson. It must certainly come in later, telling you what energy is, but not to such a simple question as "What makes a [toy] dog move?" A child should be given a child's answer. "Open it up; let's look at it."
During those walks in the woods, I learned a great deal. In the case of birds, for example, I already mentioned migration, but I will give you another example of birds in the woods. Instead of naming them, my father would say, "Look, notice that the bird is always pecking in its feathers. It pecks a lot in its feathers. Why do you think it pecks the feathers?"
I guessed it's because the feathers are ruffled, and he's trying to straighten them out. He said, "Okay, when would the feathers get ruffled, or how would they get ruffled?"
"When he flies. When he walks around, it's okay; but when he flies it ruffles the feathers."
Then he would say, "You would guess then when the bird just landed he would have to peck more at his feathers than after he has straightened them out and has just been walking around the ground for a while. Okay, let's look."
So we would look, and we would watch, and it turned out, as far as I could make out, that the bird pecked about as much and as often no matter how long he was walking an the ground and not just directly after flight.
So my guess was wrong, and I couldn't guess the right reason. My father revealed the reason.
It is that the birds have lice. There is a little flake that comes off the feather, my father taught me, stuff that can be eaten, and the louse eats it. And then an the loose, there is a little bit of wax in the joints between the sections of the leg that oases out, and there is a mite that lives in there that can eat that wax. Now the mite has such a good source of food that it doesn't digest it too well, so from the rear end there comes a liquid that has too much sugar, and in that sugar lives a tiny creature, etc.
The facts are not correct; the spirit is correct. First, I learned about parasitism, one on the other, on the other, on the other. Second, he went on to say that in the world whenever there is any source of something that could be eaten to make life go, some form of life finds a way to make use of that source; and that each little bit of left over stuff is eaten by something.
Now the point of this is that the result of observation, even if I were unable to come to the ultimate conclusion, was a wonderful piece of gold, with marvelous results. It was something marvelous.
Suppose I were told to observe, to make a list, to write down, to do this, to look, and when I wrote my list down, it was filed with 130 other lists in the back of a notebook. I would learn that the result of observation is relatively dull, that nothing much comes of it.
I think it is very important--at least it was to me--that if you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. I learned then what science was about: it was patience. If you looked, and you watched, and you paid attention, you got a great reward from it--although possibly not every time. As a result, when I became a more mature man, I would painstakingly, hour after hour, for years, work on problems--sometimes many years, sometimes shorter times; many of them failing, lots of stuff going into the wastebasket--but every once in a while there was the gold of a new understanding that I had learned to expect when I was a kid, the result of observation. For I did not learn that observation was not worthwhile.
Incidentally, in the forest we learned other things. We would go for walks and see all the regular things, and talk about many things: about the growing plants, the struggle of the trees for light, how they try to get as high as they can, and to solve the problem of getting water higher than 35 or 40 feet, the little plants on the ground that look for the little bits of light that come through all that growth, and so forth.
One day, after we had seen all this, my father took me to the forest again and said, "In all this time we have been looking at the forest we have only seen half of what is going on, exactly half."
I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "We have been looking at how all these things grow; but for each bit of growth, there must be the same amount of decay--otherwise, the materials would be consumed forever: dead trees would lie there, having used up all the stuff from the air and the ground, and it wouldn't get back into the ground or the air, so nothing else could grow because there is no material available. There must be for each bit of growth exactly the same amount of decay."
There then followed many walks in the woods during which we broke up old stumps, saw frizzy bags and funguses growing; he couldn’t show me bacteria, but we saw the softening effects, and so on. I saw the forest as a process of the constant turning of materials.
There were many such things, descriptions of things, in odd ways. He often started to talk about things like this: "Suppose a man from Mars were to come down and look at the world." For example, when I was playing with my electric trains, he told me that there is a great wheel being turned by water which is connected by filaments of copper, which spread out and spread out and spread out in all directions; and then there are little wheels, and all those little wheels turn when the big wheel turns. The relation between them is only that there is copper and iron, nothing else--no moving parts. You turn one wheel here, and all the little wheels all over the place turn, and your train is one of them. It was a wonderful world my father told me about.
You might wonder what he got out of it all. I went to MIT. I went to Princeton. I came home, and he said, "Now you've got a science education. I have always wanted to know something that I have never understood, and so, my son, I want you to explain it to me."
I said yes.
He said, "I understand that they say that light is emitted from an atom when it goes from one state to another, from an excited state to a state of lower energy.
I said, "That's right."
"And light is a kind of particle, a photon, I think they call it."
"So if the photon comes out of the atom when it goes from the excited to the lower state, the photon must have been in the atom in the excited state."
I said, "Well, no."
He said, "Well, how do you look at it so you can think of a particle photon coming out without it having been in there in the excited state?"
I thought a few minutes, and I said, "I'm sorry; I don't know. I can't explain it to you."
He was very disappointed after all these years and years of trying to teach me something, that it came out with such poor results.
What science is, I think, may be something like this: There was on this planet an evolution of life to a stage that there were evolved animals, which are intelligent. I don't mean just human beings, but animals which play and which can learn something from experience--like cats. But at this stage each animal would have to learn from its own experience. They gradually develop, until some animal could learn from experience more rapidly and could even learn from another’s experience by watching, or one could show the other, or he saw what the other one did. So there came a possibility that all might learn it, but the transmission was inefficient and they would die, and maybe the one who learned it died, too, before he could pass it on to others.
The question is: is it possible to learn more rapidly what somebody learned from some accident than the rate at which the thing is being forgotten, either because of bad memory or because of the death of the learner or inventors?
So there came a time, perhaps, when for some species the rate at which learning was increased, reached such a pitch that suddenly a completely new thing happened: things could be learned by one individual animal, passed on to another, and another fast enough that it was not lost to the race. Thus became possible an accumulation of knowledge of the race.
This has been called time-binding. I don't know who first called it this. At any rate, we have here [in this hall] some samples of those animals, sitting here trying to bind one experience to another, each one trying to learn from the other.
This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world--but it had a disease in it: it was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race. The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.
So there came a time in which the ideas, although accumulated very slowly, were all accumulations not only of practical and useful things, but great accumulations of all types of prejudices, and strange and odd beliefs.
Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio again from experience what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race['s] experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.
I would like to remind you all of things that you know very well in order to give you a little enthusiasm. In religion, the moral lessons are taught, but they are not just taught once, you are inspired again and again, and I think it is necessary to inspire again and again, and to remember the value of science for children, for grown-ups, and everybody else, in several ways; not only [so] that we will become better citizens, more able to control nature and so on.
There are other things.
There is the value of the worldview created by science. There is the beauty and the wonder of the world that is discovered through the results of these new experiences. That is to say, the wonders of the content which I just reminded you of; that things move because the sun is shining. (Yet, not everything moves because the sun is shining. The earth rotates independent of the sun shining, and the nuclear reaction recently produced energy on the earth, a new source. Probably volcanoes are generally moved from a source different from the shining sun.)
The world looks so different after learning science. For example, trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into tree, and in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.
Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought; the positive results that come from doubting that the lessons are all true. You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers.
We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations, make lists, do statistics, and so on, but these do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science analogous to the South Sea Islanders' airfields--radio towers, etc., made out of wood. The islanders expect a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners' airfields around them, but strangely enough, their wood planes do not fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are. [But] you teachers, who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, can maybe doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
When someone says, "Science teaches such and such," he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, "Science has shown such and such," you might ask, "How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?"
It should not be "science has shown" but "this experiment, this effect, has shown." And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments--but be patient and listen to all the evidence--to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.
In a field which is so complicated [as education] that true science is not yet able to get anywhere, we have to rely on a kind of old-fashioned wisdom, a kind of definite straightforwardness. I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong.
I have probably ruined the system, and the students that are coming into Caltech no longer will be any good. I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television--words, books, and so on--are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.
Finally, with regard to this time-binding, a man cannot live beyond the grave. Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the [human] race--now that it is aware of the disease to which it is liable--does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.
It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.
So carry on. Thank you.